by Laura R. Sommers
I had an old vase I couldn’t quite get rid of. I couldn’t throw it away, give it away, or dash it to pieces in the driveway. And yet I hated it.
This vase was the worst possible pink. Solid, milky pink. Not trendy pink. Not the heart-pounding magenta of cosmos, or the sweet, peachy pink of sunset, or the rosy blush of a warm, warm ivory.
This was go-with-nothing-you-own pink. Poodle skirt pink. Insane asylum wall paint pink. Chewed-up, dried-up bubble gum under the desk pink.
If there is such a thing as bilious pink, this was it.
You’ve seen this vase, or something like it, at a flea market or antique shop. You thought it looked valuably old, kind of Art Deco, and you got excited for a moment. It had what you considered classical lines, perhaps modeled on a Mesopotamian water pot, or the urn for a Roman merchant’s remains. For a moment, it tricked you into thinking it was important, and you went into your Antiques Road Show rags-to-riches fantasy. But in the end, you decided it was too squat to be taken seriously. Too thick and clunky for its diminutive size. Too something. And too gawd-awfully pink.
Something about the vase was just. Not. Right.
The more you looked at it, the more you could practically smell the dirt from the pet cemetery. It looked whole, but as if it had been taken apart and glued back together wrong.
Picture an art student’s first efforts in a class called “Proportions,” and you are beginning to understand how truly flawed this pink vase was. The round base was too small to balance the top. From the bottom, it flared up and out too quickly, with grooves that formed finger-like shapes that bent at the knuckles and then flared back in. From there, it tapered more slowly out again, to a wide, tall mouth (tall enough to look top-heavy, but not enough to be truly dramatic).
On each side, it had stubby handles that began at the knuckles and squished their way back to the vase about an inch short of the top (a little too soon, in other words).
It felt stingy to me. As if the artist were only allotted a handful of clay and overburdened with the assignment to “do something big.”
And this whole hot mess stood under six inches tall.
Ugly though it was, I couldn’t throw the vase out, because it was my mother’s. And she was gone. She died when she was 52; I was 24 at the time.
A year after she died, my father dropped off the vase at my first apartment, buried inside a box of her personal effects. He had already remarried, and for his new wife’s sake, had emptied out the closet and the drawers. The box held a few items of clothing, a sketchbook, some odd pieces of jewelry, and the ill-proportioned vase.
At the time, I was thrilled. My family has never been big on the concept of “inheritance.” All four of my grandparents lived well into their 80s, while requiring expensive care to keep them stubbornly independent in their waning years. Most of their personal effects were either sold off or used up by the time the will was read.
Our family motto could easily be, “Hold on, I’m still using that.”
We’ve learned, over the generations, to turn the things that do get passed on into “heirlooms”—such as they are.
Hence, in my kitchen, I use a cast-iron skillet that belonged to my husband’s family, and Revere Ware pots that were wedding gifts to my mother.
Hence, in my closet hang certain items of clothing, like the yellow-and-black faux hieroglyphic-printed shirt from the deep ‘80s that I wore the first summer my husband and I dated.
Hence, on the bookshelf in my writing office, in a place of honor, sat the pink vase.
Over time, that little vase took on nearly mythic status. Because in addition to being a rare remembrance of my mother, it also reminded me of something else: my mother’s latent artistic ability.
She didn’t make the vase. But she drew it once. In pencil.
As a child, I saw the drawing before I ever saw the vase. (Most of the time the vase lived hidden in our linen closet.) I thought the drawing badly proportioned, until one day, reaching in for a towel, I found what it was drawn from.
Even then, I knew that my mother had captured its likeness very well. That she had talent. Without training. Without even reading books on the subject.
Many years later, when I brought up the vase to a writing instructor, she said to me, “Why don’t you draw it? And write about the experience?”
Hell, no. If I drew it, I would have to compare my drawing to my mother’s. It would become an obsession. I would keep working at it until I was sure mine was better, freer, more sophisticated, better trained, and more original than hers.
It would be important for me to prove that. Because she gave up so much for me, so I would know how to draw the vase and write about it. Better, and more confidently, than she ever could.
The vase stood there, on the bookshelf in my writing study, undermining my creative endeavors with deadly guilt rays.
That’s why I hated the vase.
As a teenager in the 1970s, I was given many opportunities to “express myself.” To explore my own creativity—art classes, music lessons, editor of the high school yearbook. Every Christmas included a gift of paints or a Spirograph, a book on drawing or a new sketchbook. From my mother, of course.
She did the dinner dishes while I studied and wrote little stories and made things out of construction paper and felt and fabric. She knitted in the music building lobby and sat through Sunday afternoon concerts while I took horn lessons and found my way to music school. She praised my every effort, telling me what talent I had, while hers mostly just lay there.
When she had a moment, she opened her one thin sketchbook and drew what she could find around the house, ugly though it might have been.
Only recently, my father told me that upon graduation from college, my mother was accepted into a Master’s program in the sciences at Brown. But she decided, instead, to marry him and have four children. An irrevocable decision, back then. As far away from art as she could get.
I know she had the ability to be a researcher. Or a philosopher. Or, yes, an artist.
But she died too soon. Before she was through dragging kids around to their events, so she might finally consider taking an art class. Before the last of her four children left the nest. Before women’s liberation firmly established that it was OK to spend a little bit of time on yourself. Before her own daughter, perhaps as an adult, would have encouraged her to explore her own talent.
When I told her I was going to Europe my junior year of college, she said, a little hoarsely, “I always thought I would get to Europe before you.”
In Europe, I scoffed at the stuffiness of the art museums, and yet wished I could stay there forever—away from her, from her frustration, from that strangling feeling of guilt, forever.
Meanwhile, she sat at home and put more drawings into her sketchbook: A houseplant. My father’s profile. A piece of driftwood from a vacation on Lake Michigan.
The vase often asked me questions: Wouldn’t she have been better off without me? Happier? More fulfilled? Wouldn’t she have found better things to draw? Had she really sacrificed so much for my talent?
Every time I looked at it, the pink vase wagged a square-knuckled finger at me. Sometimes, it had the power to paralyze me. I would think about the scary choices life forces us to make. The paths we take. The opportunities we don’t. The potential we decide to develop. The remnants we never quite know what to do with.
I lugged the pink vase around with me for a quarter of a century, packing and unpacking it with every move, my personal pink albatross, through the migratory years of boyfriends and apartments, into the security of marriage and the restlessness of middle age and countless career moves and purge after purge of my possessions.
Recently, I decided it was time to end my relationship with the vase. Before I could change my mind, I divided the pages of the sketchbook among my brothers and my sister. And then, without a lot of ceremony, I buried the vase in the woods behind my house, and planted some bluebells over it.
I hope now I can finally let go of that part of my mother that has always been inside me, the frustrated, can’t-do-anything-right, will-never-do-enough part of her that never got to take an art class and took up so much room in my heart.
I buried the vase. Because I needed to be done with all of it.
Now every time I feel my mother’s old desperate longing, every time I feel the guilt rising again, every time the image of that ugly pink vase looms in my mind’s eye, I will remind myself, gently, that the choice to create life and exclude art was hers. And only hers.
At last, I buried her vase. Because I finally realized what it had been telling me all along: it was never really mine.
About the Author
Laura Sommers lives and writes in Granville, Ohio. She has written professionally, for advertising and design clients, for more than 25 years, and has authored newspaper features, poems, essays, book reviews, and columns for major journals and publications. Sommers has authored a history book, American Dreamboats, and is now seeking publication of a historical novel, The Complete Ladies’ Guide to Cultivating a Garden, a Husband & an Artist: An Anti-Romance. Sommers graduated from the University of Rochester with a bachelor’s degree in English, and concentrations in German and music.